Negotiations in the News: The West Unites on Russian Sanctions

Negotiations in the news can provide guidance to those managing complex group negotiations. Here’s how Western nations negotiated severe sanctions against Russia for its war with Ukraine.

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Negotiations in the News: The West Unites on Russian Sanctions Third-Party Mediation - International Negotiation Process

Just days after Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, the European Union, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced they would unleash the most punishing sanctions package ever deployed against a single country. Most stunningly, they blocked Russia’s Central Bank from accessing its $643 billion in foreign-exchange reserves, a move that caused the ruble to immediately collapse.

Negotiations in the news often highlight valuable negotiation strategies and tactics, and that’s especially true of this international negotiation news story. In an interview with Michael Barbaro, editor of the New York Times podcast The Daily, Times Brussels bureau chief Matina Stevis-Gridneff focused on how the 27 member nations of the European Union reached agreement on Russian sanctions, despite their widely varying interests and history of disunity.

In the other recent negotiations in the news, including the Eurozone debt crisis, the migration crisis, and Brexit, the bloc has failed to stick together, says Stevis-Gridneff. There was no reason to expect anything different from negotiations on Russian sanctions. According to E.U. rules, the 27 nations must reach unanimous agreement on foreign-policy initiatives—an especially high bar in this case, given their widely varying relationships and interests with Russia. Nonetheless, they pulled it off. But how?

According to Stevis-Gridneff, three players served pivotal roles at key points in the international negotiation process: U.S. president Joe Biden, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, and an obscure European Commission bureaucrat named Bjoern Seibert.

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The Brain

When the United States told the European Union in January 2022 that Russia appeared to be planning military action against Ukraine, many bureaucrats were skeptical, given recent U.S. intelligence failures regarding Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Seibert, the German chief of staff of European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and an expert in U.S. defense, grasped the gravity of the situation. Quickly and quietly, he began putting together a massive list of sanctions, according to Stevis-Gridneff. Time was of the essence, he understood, as sanctions are highly complicated to negotiate and implement.

The “low-profile” Seibert became known as “the brain” behind the West’s sanctions, says Stevis-Gridneff. His approach to the group negotiations proved particularly effective: Rather than gathering together all E.U. nations’ representatives at the same time, he met with officials from small groups of countries and pushed for consensus. At times, he would suggest one country’s idea to another and make the second country feel “like they had come up with the idea,” says Stevis-Gridneff. Fearful of tipping off Putin and triggering resistance among certain E.U. members, Seibert was careful not to put anything in writing.

As a result of Seibert’s efforts, a package was ready for E.U. leaders to consider when Putin invaded Ukraine. The next step was to get them and other world leaders to agree to sign on to it.

The Partner

That’s where Biden and his administration came in. The president “played an active role in pushing [U.S.] intelligence to the right people in Europe” and persuading them to come together, according to Stevis-Gridneff.

For the White House, the challenge was to regain the trust and confidence of European officials who felt burned by the disastrous U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. To do so, Biden spoke to European leaders as an “equal partner,” says Stevis-Gridneff. He told them that their actions against Putin would be more impactful than those of the United States because of their closer geographic and economic proximity to Russia. But unity was key, he said: If the West didn’t work together, Putin wouldn’t feel sufficient pressure to back down.

The Closer

The most dramatic stage of the negotiations came on February 24, just hours into the Russian invasion, when Zelensky was patched into a meeting of E.U. leaders in Brussels from his bunker in Kyiv.

“‘Look, this could be the last time you see me alive,’” he reportedly told them. “‘You need to do more for me.’” He urged them to suspend Russian banks from SWIFT, the electronic-payment-messaging system; sanction Putin and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov; and send weapons to Ukraine.

E.U. leaders had been resisting all these actions. But the contrast between them, “sitting in their suits in this comfortable room in the safety of central Brussels,” and Zelensky, wearing military gear and risking death, couldn’t be starker, said Stevis-Gridneff. “The mood shifted completely,” sources told her: Leaders left the meeting willing to unleash “stunning” penalties on Russia.

Shock and Awe

On February 28, the European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada announced “the financial equivalent of shock and awe” against Russia. They cut Russia’s Central Bank off from the West, barred major Russian banks from SWIFT, forbid their own banks from dealing with Russia, and sanctioned Putin, Lavrov, and other politicians and oligarchs. The European Union also said it would finance the purchase and delivery of weapons to Ukraine, the first time it had made such a move.

Within hours, the ruble lost one-quarter of its value. The Moscow stock exchange closed to ward off a total economic collapse. Visa, Mastercard, Apple, and Google transactions stop working in Russia, and Russians hurried to withdraw cash.

A key aim of the sanctions was to hasten the end of the war by planting “seeds of dissent” against Putin among the Russian people, says Stevis-Gridneff. But the international negotiation also had an unforeseen consequence: “It’s making the European Union see itself as one,” she says, “which is the first step in actually being one.”

Learning from Negotiations in the News

Negotiators in business and other realms have a great deal to learn from group negotiations in the news. Here are key takeaways from Western nations’ negotiations on Russian sanctions:

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare. Seibert understood the need to get down to business immediately so that sanctions would be ready if war broke out. When a crisis looms, drop everything to prepare for it.
  • Try a small-group approach. To keep group negotiations from getting unwieldy, try meeting with small groups. Seibert served as a de facto mediator, playing parties’ ideas off of each other.
  • Strive for secrecy. High-profile talks are easily ruined by leaks. Keep them as quiet as possible so that parties feel free to brainstorm proposals.
  • Approach parties as equals. If you’re the more powerful party, it’s especially important to treat your counterparts as valued equals to win their trust, as Biden recognized.
  • Appeal to counterparts’ sense of duty. With his back against the wall, Zelensky called on Western leaders to do all they could to help his country. Such pleas appeal to our shared humanity and innate desire to help those in dire straits.

What have you learned lately from negotiations in the news?

Negotiation Skills

Claim your FREE copy: Negotiation Skills

Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


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